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Naheed Nenshi Is Loving the UCP Freak-Out

‘I’m two days into this job and we’re seeing Conservatives get really, really nervous.’

Graham Thomson 14 Mar 2024The Tyee

Graham Thomson is an award-winning Edmonton-based columnist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, first with the Edmonton Journal and now as a freelancer.

He wasn’t exactly walking into the lion’s den but when former Calgary mayor, and now NDP leadership candidate, Naheed Nenshi visited the Alberta legislature Wednesday, he was surrounded by many more enemies than friends.

Those enemies included United Conservative Party members who have been so busy setting their hair on fire at the prospect of Nenshi becoming NDP leader that the government should send one of its water bombers to UCP headquarters.

Within minutes of Nenshi announcing his candidacy Monday afternoon, social media exploded with posts from outraged UCP supporters attacking Nenshi’s record as Calgary mayor from 2010 to 2021.

One of the government’s more combative ministers, Jason Nixon, mentioned Nenshi by name as he tried to link him with dictator Joseph Stalin during a legislative speech attacking an NDP proposal for rent control.

“It’d make Joseph Stalin blush, how much this NDP wants to go down the road of communism in our province,” said Nixon as he pivoted to Nenshi. He needled Opposition MLAs by suggesting Nenshi, who joined the party only three weeks ago, is intent on hijacking the NDP and turning it into a vanity political movement under a new name using Nenshi’s “purple revolution” brand.

“Even when Nenshi gets here and changes their colour to purple and changes their name, we’re still going to see a socialist party across from us,” said Nixon.

On Wednesday, as Nenshi sat in the legislature’s public gallery to watch question period, former cabinet minister Rick Orman posted on X a not-so-subtle dig at Nenshi by suggesting he had a “cozy relationship” with the always-unpopular-in-Alberta Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and included an undated photo of the two men embracing.

Far from being offended, Nenshi is lapping up the attention.

“It’s sort of funny that I’m two days into this job and we’re seeing people in the Conservative movement get really, really nervous,” said Nenshi during a scrum with members of the legislature’s press gallery. “That’s OK with me. That’s fine with me. I’m happy to make them a little nervous to get a little bit under their skin.”

Nenshi’s enemies also include the five other candidates in the leadership race, although they are doing their best to appear welcoming. Sort of.

Last week, Kathleen Ganley, a Calgary MLA who was seen as the front-runner before Nenshi entered the race, criticized Nenshi’s reputation in some circles as a prima donna: “Provincial politics is played as a team and he’s been pretty clear that he doesn’t want to be on that team.”

Another serious contender, Edmonton MLA Rakhi Pancholi, acknowledged Nenshi “does have big name recognition and a lot of people are excited,” but wondered if he could grow the party’s base beyond Calgary into rural Alberta.

That’s actually a question facing all the candidates.

Traditional NDP members do worry Nenshi will use his name recognition to attract enough non-aligned progressive voters to win the leadership vote on June 22 and, as Minister Nixon mischievously suggested, hijack the NDP.

After all, his campaign slogan, “Naheed Nenshi for Alberta. For all of us,” doesn’t mention the NDP.

His unofficial slogan is pretty much “Only I can defeat Danielle Smith in the 2027 provincial election.” And that’s what will be the ultimate selling point of his campaign.

Nevertheless, he insists he is a good fit for the party, despite not being a member until last month and despite being critical of the party in the past. In last May’s provincial election, Nenshi only “loaned” his vote to the NDP as a protest against Premier Danielle Smith.

Interestingly, that is part of his strategy for the leadership race: to embrace his status as an outsider to persuade other outsiders to join the party and make him leader.

But he also says longtime members were among “500 enthusiastic” supporters who turned out for his campaign launch in Calgary.

There is no doubt Nenshi’s candidacy has electrified the race. No other candidate has been the subject of national news coverage.

Nenshi has known Smith since they were in university together 30 years ago and has slammed her right-wing UCP government as “incompetent, immoral and dangerous.”

For her part, Smith is not returning fire.

“I’ll do what I have always done with leftist politicians. I will debate them on policy and on our record and I’ll trust that Albertans will decide which party better reflects their values and their priorities,” said Smith during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

But she, too, couldn’t resist needling the NDP over the prospect of an outsider like Nenshi taking over the party: “I don’t even think they know what they want to be at the end of their leadership contest. So, as soon as they choose their leader and decide what they want to be, whether they want to be the NDP or some other version of it, I’d be more than happy to talk about policy.”

Nenshi has rejected changing the party name as some former New Democratic members suggested last year. But he is interested in cutting formal ties with the federal NDP, a party that is about as popular in Alberta as the federal Liberals.

He says party members will have the final word.

Besides Nenshi, the NDP leadership candidates include Alberta Federation of Labour leader Gil McGowan as well as four MLAs: Ganley, Pancholi, Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse.

Nenshi is not an MLA and reporters wanted to know how he could lead the party effectively without a seat in the legislature.

“Ultimately, you can lead from the lobby as well as from the floor and we’ve got a great caucus,” said Nenshi, who added he would not force a member to step down to trigger a byelection.

Nenshi, though, isn’t devoid of friends in the legislature. Three NDP politicians flanked him during his media scrum: Calgary-Falconridge MLA Parmeet Singh Boparai, Calgary-Foothills MLA Court Ellingson and Edmonton-Ellerslie MLA Rod Loyola.

As part of the Nenshi team, they face an uphill battle. They have less than six weeks to sell memberships before the April 22 cutoff date.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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